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U.S. and China share long history of distrust

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May 24, 1999
Web posted at: 10:05 p.m. EDT (0205 GMT)

In this story:

Nuclear arms thorn

Moments of cooperation

Trade and human rights


From World Affairs Correspondent Ralph Begleiter

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The congressional report set to be released on Tuesday about alleged Chinese nuclear espionage against the United States is the latest in a very long string of tensions between the world's richest nation and the world's most populous one.

Distrust is one of the most basic characteristics of the relationship between the two countries.

When China fired missiles toward Taiwan in 1996, a distrustful United States responded with aircraft carriers and a show of force.

A year earlier, when Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui visited the United States, a distrustful China feared the United States was endorsing Taiwan's independence.

Washington's current accusations of espionage against China -- summarily dismissed by Beijing -- are being played out amid mutual suspicion that has characterized the Sino-American relationship since Richard Nixon broke the ice almost 30 years ago.

Centuries of Western exploitation of Chinese resources also still affect the relations between the United States and China.

"There is a certain attitude, I think, in China that ... we the Chinese were misused by the West, by the outside world, for well over a century and sort of the outside world owes it to us," says Richard Solomon of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Nuclear arms thorn

China's military has been repeatedly accused by the United States of selling nuclear and missile technology to countries such as Pakistan, which just last year tested its first nuclear weapon and several long-range missiles.

The arms sales issue has been a thorn in relations with the United States since the 1980s. It plagued the Bush administration's efforts to improve ties with China -- even before the relationship tanked after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989.

"It's going to complicate our relationship in the near run. Having said that, China has a large stake in its relations with the U.S.; they're not going to toss this away casually," said Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China.

A succession of American officials have hoisted glasses in Beijing over the past two decades, hoping to ease tensions.

"We have to understand where we have strategic relationships that require us to take a different approach. I guess the easiest way to describe it is: different strokes for different folks," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said last month.

Clinton and  China President Jiang Zemin
To help build U.S.-China relations, Clinton visited China President Jiang Zemin in 1998  

Moments of cooperation

Washington and Beijing have worked together to ease tensions and promote negotiations between North and South Korea.

China also cooperated with the United States during the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq by abstaining, rather than exercising its veto power at the U.N. Security Council.

China is expected to do the same if a Kosovo war resolution comes before the Security Council -- despite NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

But Beijing did take advantage of that incident to whip up anti-American sentiment.

"This is very much part of their psychology, since the Opium War if you will. It goes way back -- a hundred years of national humiliation," said former U.S. Ambassador to China James Lilley.

Trade and human rights

The United States and China have one of the largest trading relationships in the world, ranging from aircraft and farm machinery to textiles and software.

But a $57 billion trade deficit angers some in the United States, and there are many other irritants in the Sino-American relationship.

"From what I've seen, I don't think you can trust the Chinese on any deal," U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said last week.

Aside from the spread of nuclear and missile arms technology, the United States also chafes at human rights issues such as religious freedom and the treatment of political dissidents, prisoners and factory workers, as well as Beijing's refusal even to discuss expanded autonomy for the province of Tibet.

Those issues alone have for a long time prompted both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to resist cultivating warm ties with China, and now, the current charges of espionage and campaign contributions for influence have provoked a fresh round of China-bashing in the United States.

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Senate spotlights nuclear security lapses
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U.S. State Department issues travel warning for China
May 10, 1999

Chinese Embassy to the U.S.
Office of the Director of Central Intelligence
Consulate General of the People's Republic of China
China Today
Department of Energy
Department of Justice
  • Attorney General Janet Reno
The White House
  • National Security Council
  • Biography of Samuel Berger
Los Alamos National Laboratory
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